Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
09 Sep 2012
by Matt Waldman
As a former musician, I love to explore the parallels between football and music. They both have a mathematical foundation that helps us develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter. They share the properties of rhythm, harmony, and technique. Both require precision, but the best players in the worlds of football and music deliver transcendent performances that grab our emotions, evict us from our heads, and force us to live in the moment.
Think about your all-time favorite NFL player. A few of you are thinking about his technique. Some of you are thinking about his physical skill. And if you’re a regular to Football Outsiders, then many of you may be thinking about his career stats. But I bet there’s something else that most of you also thought about: his great plays. Moments that transcended technique, skill, strategy, and statistics.
My debut Futures column this spring was a profile of Russell Wilson, an underrated quarterback prospect who possesses a knack for making plays that transcend his perceived limitations. It only seems fitting to begin my look at this fall’s crop of prospects by examining some transcendent moments of another Wilson quarterback –- Arkansas' Tyler Wilson. Considered one of the top-five college passers entering the 2012 season, Wilson’s game has been equal parts inspiration and frustration.
In last year’s come-from-behind victory against Vanderbilt, the Arkansas quarterback was 27-for-43 for 316 yards and 1 touchdown. Not a bad day in the box score, especially when including the context that his receivers dropped four passes. However, Wilson made another six throws that the Commodores should have intercepted, and if not for Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy’s fumble inside the Razorbacks’ three in the fourth quarter, Arkansas probably loses the game.
Wilson displays reckless tendencies that, if not fixed, could hurt his chances of reaching his potential as an NFL quarterback. However, I’m a believer that it is better to have a quarterback prospect with an aggressive, down field, tight-window mentality as a passer than a player too apt to check the ball to an outlet receiver. Tom Brady recently shared that a risk-taking mentalityis one of the best ways to learn the quarterback position. There must be some balanced decision-making, but if I were to err on one side or the other, I think it is easier to teach an aggressive player to pull back a notch than it is to teach Captain Check-Down to take more shot plays.
Wilson’s mentality fits my preference. The first half of the Vanderbilt game demonstrates why I think Wilson has the decision-making, improvisational skill, and guts to make plays that separate NFL starters from college stars. These are what I call the "raw material" for future transcendent moments.
A quarterback not only has to learn where he’s supposed to throw the football, but where to place the ball as he’s executing that decision. This involves athleticism, technique, and a feel for his opponents and his teammate. Wilson’s 14-yard completion to his tight end on a first-and-10 pass with 7:08 in the first quarter displays the Arkansas quarterback’s ability to make the plays that he’ll have to make with great frequency in the NFL.
The Razorbacks offense begins the play in 11 personnel with receivers 2x1 and Wilson in the shotgun. The tight end will run a 14-yard in-route against one safety deep, finding the opening in the zone for Wilson to complete the pass.
There’s good reason to believe that this play is designed for Wilson to take a three-step drop and throw to the right side, with the options being the triangle of receivers moving to that direction at three different levels of depth. Wilson’s job is to read the safety first to help determine his target. The quarterback takes a short drop and slides towards the right, reading the strong safety working towards the flat. The coverage responsibility of the defensive back poses an obstacle for Wilson to target the running back on a swing route near the right hash, as well as the strong side slot receiver running the crossing route towards that flat.
What is likely built into this play is the hitch step that Wilson takes after the three-step drop. This is to give the quarterback an opportunity to buy time in the pocket, reposition his body to the left side of the field, and look to his receivers there. When Wilson reads strong safety in the right place to take away the two short routes, the quarterback slides to the middle of the pocket with his hitch step and keeps his body in a good throwing position to get rid of the ball fast.
Wilson hasn’t moved more than a yard up the field to avoid the rush to his right, but his efficient stance and footwork puts the quarterback in better position to deliver an accurate pass than if he broke the pocket on the run. His technique also forces the two Vanderbilt defenders in the middle of the field to slide towards him, creating a larger opening for the tight end breaking behind them. After Wilson climbs the ladder, he immediately delivers the pass low and away to his tight end Chris Gragg for the completion.
What I like most about this play is that, in quick succession, Wilson climbs, sets, and reads the defender in the left flat so he can deliver the ball low and behind the tight end. This read and throw gives his receiver a chance to make a play on the ball without the risk of a deflection or interception. The pass is accurate enough to lead the tight end to make a sliding adjustment. The result is a 14-yard catch.
The next play of note is a 13-yard completion on third-and-5 with 5:28 in the first quarter. Arkansas employs a shotgun set from 01 personnel with receivers 1x3 versus Vanderbilt’s 3-3-5 defense.
This concept is designed to stretch the field with three receivers and still provide Wilson a receiver to work underneath in this eight-man zone. The middle slot receiver running the orange route is ultimately Wilson’s target. The most interesting part of the play isn’t the reads, but what happens when Wilson understands that he has to manipulate the linebacker in the middle of the field while he’s feeling pressure in the pocket.
In subsequent frames, Wilson slides from the pressure, spots his crossing route, and reads the linebacker (No. 15) getting in perfect position to cut off his pass. Just as Wilson begins his release, the defensive end delivers a blindside hit.
Wilson feels the pocket constricting from the middle and he does another nice job of sliding to the open area while maintaining a good throwing stance. Vanderbilt’s linebacker anticipates the crossing route well, and begins to slide to cut off the break.
Just as Wilson begins his release, he reads the linebacker sliding into the slot receiver’s path on the cross. This is an interception waiting to happen, but Wilson brings the ball down and hesitates long enough to reset. This is a risky play, considering the defensive end bearing down from Wilson’s blindside, but the decision pays off.
Wilson resets and as he’s hit and wrapped, delivers the ball with enough touch to place the pass over the head and to the outside of the linebacker as the slot receiver continues his route into the flat. The linebacker was in such good position to cut off the pass that he’s now caught flat-footed as the receiver streaks behind him.
As the pass approaches its target, Wilson’s decision illustrates his quick-thinking, touch, and ability to deliver the ball while off-balance. Not long after this play, Wilson demonstrates his skill to deliver the ball from awkward positions again on an 11-yard gain on second-and-5 from a 12 personnel weak side twin receiver shotgun set from the Vanderbilt 14. He stood in the face of the pressure to deliver the ball around the oncoming defensive back and to his tight end circling from the backfield. Although the pass was low and away from the tight end, and required a nice effort from the tight end to complete the pass, the placement of this jump pass was where only the receiver had a chance at the football.
This next series of plays is a great visual illustration of the guts required of a top-notch NFL quarterback. Arkansas is driving at the end of the half, and Vanderbilt has decided to blitz Wilson on just about every play. The first play I’ll show in this series occurs just after Wilson climbs the pocket and throws open his receiver up the left hash with a perfectly placed ball that is over the middle zone defender and inside the safety. The pass is in a position for the receiver to turn his back to the oncoming defender and make the catch. Although Wilson’s receiver initially makes the reception, the defender jars the ball loose.
Wilson follows up that drop against a five-man pass rush from a 3x2 receiver empty set with 0:24 in the half. Wilson climbs the pocket, looking for his receiver to come open over the middle as a defender bears down on him.
Just as Wilson delivers the ball, a defender buries his helmet into Wilson’s chest. The pass travels 34 yards from release point to reception point.
However, the hit prevents Wilson from getting enough distance and velocity on the pass for the receiver to catch the ball in stride. The pass falls just short enough that the receiver has to make a sliding attempt on the pass, losing control of the ball as he hits the ground and the defender makes contact with him.
After taking a shot like this, many quarterbacks grow restless in the pocket or their accuracy suffers. Not Wilson. The quarterback gets off the deck and, on fourth-and-10, delivers a 30-yard completion to the Vanderbilt 11. He kills the clock with 0:19, and then delivers a beautiful touchdown pass.
The sequence begins with the fourth-down play from a 3x2 empty shotgun set versus the same blitz. This time, Wilson and his receiver shorten the depth of the route so the quarterback has a chance to make the play if he has to take another shot. Sure enough this is exactly what happens.
Wilson sees the open field, anticipates the location, and makes the throw despite the fact that he’s creamed by an unblocked linebacker. Here’s a close up of the play.
Just as Wilson releases the ball, the defender launches into the quarterback, makes initial contact with the head and shoulders, and wraps the quarterback before planting the passer on his back.
If a skinny post under an oncoming linebacker or safety is a "money play" for a possession receiver, this is a "money series" at the end of the half.
Wilson delivers the touchdown two plays later, with 0:09 left. It's a seam route to the back of the end zone. The line drive has great zip and anticipation to squeeze it past the corner and over the safety –- an excellent, pro-caliber pass.
The ball has to travel about 30 yards on a line, between two defenders, with the anticipation and accuracy to stay inside the end line.
Making throws under pressure or following up a bad play with a good play under difficult conditions is a sign of the aggressive, aware, and gutty mentality that defines good NFL quarterback play. Tyler Wilson may have deficiencies that could potentially keep him from reaching this summit, but he flashes enough skill, athleticism, and toughness to create transcendent moments. It’s why Wilson is one of the top-five quarterback prospects heading into the 2012 college football season.
3 comments, Last at 10 Sep 2012, 3:03pm by Karl Cuba